In early June, 17-year-old Cindy Williams of Salem, Mass. ran away from home, heading for California. She got as far as Tuscaloosa, Ala. when she began to have second thoughts about going on to the West Coast.
Cindy had spent two nights in a juvenile home in Tuscaloosa when the Trailways Bus System announced a new program offering free rides home for runaways. She became the first young person to take advantage of the offer, and a few days later stepped off a bus in Boston, where her parents were waiting to take her home.
Under ''Operation Home Free,'' the innovative program launched this month by Trailways in conjunction with the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), any youngster identified by a police department as a runaway or missing child can ride home free to any destination serviced by Trailways. The runaway is escorted by an officer to the nearest Trailways bus station or stop and is issued a free ticket.
''The program appeals to the youngster's willingness to go home,'' says Robert Angrisani, director of communications for IACP, an organization of approximately 15,000 police departments nationwide.
Many of the estimated 700,000 to 1.5 million runaways in this country come from unstable or abusive family situations and are reluctant to return home. But others who would like to go home often lack the money for transportation.
Police departments often face difficulties in dealing with runaways. In 1974, says Mr. Angrisani, about half the states adopted the Juvenile Justice Act, which decriminalized the act of minors running away from home. In those states, he notes, ''A police officer confronting a runaway has no recourse. The child can just turn away.'' Now officers can at least offer the youngster a free ride home.
In some states officers may arrest a runaway and put the young person under protective custody. Unfortunately, many police departments lack the funds to send the youngster home, and the child's family may not be able to foot the bill.
Operation Home Free was originated by Capt. Richard Voorhees of the Bridgewater Township Police Department in New Jersey. Captain Vorhees, who served as a juvenile officer for five years, conceived of the idea for the project while attending a seminar on runaway youth at a nearby college.
Speakers at the seminar eloquently described the plight of runaways, he says, but ''no one seemed to address the issue of how to get the kids home. I thought to myself, 'There's got to be some way to help the kids if they want to get back.' ''
Captain Vorhees sent letters to two major bus systems describing his plan. ''I was happy Trailways picked up on the idea,'' he says.
To reach as many young people on the streets as possible, Trailways is ''relying heavily on local law enforcement agencies to get the message out to other social service agencies for referrals,'' says Roger Rydell, vice-president of public relations for Trailways.
Trailways is also distributing half a million Operation Home Free posters and will air public service announcements on radio and television.
''There are thousands of children out there for whom the romance of leaving home has worn off, and they want to go back home,'' says Mr. Angrisani. ''They just had no way of getting there.''